Electric Work Vans Are “Almost Free”

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People considering an electric passenger car perserverate about range. “What if I want to quit my job and go surfing in California? Where will I plug in?” That’s a good question. There are gas stations everywhere, but few EV chargers at the beach. But there is one category of vehicle that seldom travels more than 100 miles a day and is happy to recharge overnight — work vans. These are the vehicles that plumbers, painters, carpenters, delivery workers, and other tradespeople use every day to earn a living. Because range is seldom a concern, the advantages of electric work vans are magnified.

Now, first of all, we have to admit that broad generalizations may not apply to every situation. There may be people out there who use their work vans to commute a hundred miles each way at the beginning and end of their work day. Maybe an electric work van that has a range of 125 miles or so is not suitable for them.

The New York Times dug into this topic recently and relates the experience of one man, Mitch Smedley, who owns a plumbing company in Blue Springs, Missouri, a town near Kansas City. Smedley owned four diesel-powered work vans that were each costing him up to $140 a week for fuel. He replaced one with a Ford E-Transit battery-electric work van. After using it for awhile, he sat down with his calculator and discovered he was paying only $9.00 a week for the electricity he needs to run his E-Transit.

“I knew there was going to be some savings because our electricity here is very inexpensive, but I was amazed when I worked it out. It makes it really, really cheap to operate,” Smedley told the Times. There are other benefits to driving electric work vans as well, things that may not have a precise economic value. He found he could power equipment like drain cleaning machines by plugging them into his E-Transit at job sites, eliminating the need to lug around a generator.

It also is perfect for tailgating parties at Arrowhead Stadium when the Kansas City Chiefs have a home games. Last but not least, he can park the truck in one of the spaces reserved for electric vehicles. Is that worth something? It is if you’re used to trudging a half mile or more to get to the stadium.

Then there are all the mechanical repairs, brake jobs, oil changes, and the like that Smedley won’t have to pay for. Not only that, after charging overnight, the E-Transit is ready to go the next day with no need to drive to a gas station and spend time filling the tank. More time working and less time refueling means money in the bank for Smedley. “When I look at the cost over five years,” he said with a laugh, “it’s almost like getting a free van.”

Sales Of Electric Work Vans Are Surging

Ford electric work vans
Image courtesy of Ford

Merchants Fleet is one of the largest companies supplying delivery vans to companies large and small in North America. Its business model is simple. They provide the trucks you need so you can run your business. It was one of the first to sign up for trucks from Brightdrop, the GM division dedicated to manufacturing electric work vans.

It has been using 150 Brightdrop vans for over a year and is eager to add more. Brad Jacobs, the company’s vice president for fleet consulting, told the Times the depreciation cost and the cost of interest on the capital used to buy electric vans were roughly the same as for combustion engine trucks.

“What we’ve learned from the vehicles on the road is that you save anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 a year because the cost of fuel and maintenance is so much lower with electric vehicles,” he said. “If a company is planning on a service life of five years, that’s a savings of $50,000 per vehicle. That’s very compelling.” Merchants Fleet has orders for 750 more BrightDrop delivery vans and reservations for an additional 17,000, Jacobs said.

FedEx plans to buy only battery-electric work vans starting in 2030, and wants its fleet of delivery vehicles to be to all electric by 2040. It has 150 BrightDrop trucks in its fleet today, and will be taking delivery on 350 more soon. It has reservations for an additional 2,000.

And what of the people who drive those delivery trucks for a living? The New York Times spoke with Nelson Granados, a FedEx delivery driver in Inglewood, California, who has been using a BrightDrop vehicle for the past year. He said the truck has amenities the diesel delivery vans he used to drive didn’t have, things like a stereo and heated seats. But the primary difference is a lower floor, which means fewer steps up and down during the day. “You’re getting in and out all day, so it pays off,” Granados said. “It’s like a luxury delivery truck.” Not everything can be reduced to dollars and cents.

Production Hell

Everyone thinks making electric vehicles is easy. You start with a frame, load in some batteries, add an electric motor, and you’re done. That’s the theory. But the reality is the world is awash in companies that wanted to manufacture electric work vans which have run into what Elon Musk refers to as “production hell.” That’s the point when all the money is going out and there is no money coming in because the factory is still under construction and potential customers are wary of committing to doing business with a company that can’t get product out the door.

Rivian is supposed to be making 100,000 electric delivery vans for Amazon, but that deal is in limbo as Rivian struggles to ramp up production. As a result, Amazon is now talking to Stellantis about buying RAM ProMaster vans that have been converted to battery power. Those vans are not yet in production.

UPS has ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival, a startup company based in Luxembourg that has operations in Britain. Arrival has suffered financial troubles and multiple production delays. Canoo has an electric van that would be just dandy for all sorts of delivery chores — including the US Postal Service — but it too is on the knife edge of failure, despite a recent injection of cash from Walmart.

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The Takeaway

Electric work vans make so much sense because they don’t need huge batteries that can go the coast at a moment’s notice with the surfboards inside. They are inexpensive to operate, reliable, and provide the ability to operate power tools at remote job sites. Not only that, they may be eligible for significant federal tax credits. From an environmental perspective, they have no tailpipe emissions, so they don’t spew crud into the air while driving or idling.

Electric work trucks may not be sexy like a Mercedes EQS or an Audi Q6 e-tron, but they can pay for themselves, or nearly so, which is what anyone in business wants to hear. As the word filters out through the world of commercial trucks, it may turn out that the EV revolution happens more rapidly for working vehicles than it does for passenger cars. If so, reduced emissions will be a welcome bonus to the bottom line.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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